Plugging In

My Christmas present to myself was a relatively cheap Epiphone Goth SG electric guitar. I posted the following to Instagram about that purchase recently:

I've wanted to play guitar since I first heard Aerosmith's Rocks in the sixth grade. I learned a bit on the acoustic guitar in high school, learning to play songs like "Malagueñas" and reading music a bit, but then gave it up to invest my attention in areas where I actually have talent.

But then I started working on the Rock and Romanticism project and realized I wanted to be closer to the music I would be writing about, and since I always wanted to learn anyhow... why not?

Don't get me wrong: I have no real talent. My first wife Mary started picking out the notes to commercials on the piano when she was three. She has talent and can sing. She has said in the past that I can hear notes, but they get lost somewhere coming out.

Best advice I've heard, though (from FB guitar groups) -- more practice, fewer toys. And, it's just rock. You can suck and play a rock song. Some of them. Like the Radiohead song says, anyone can play guitar. And, best advice of all, play what you love.

[I should add to my musical history running sound for a few years in churches and being an informal roadie for a while for my friend Marty's band in high school. I learned the toys and effects during this time.]

So I’ve been practicing, and after about a month off and on, I still suck. But today was a watershed day. Some context first, though. Guitars are like boats: once you have one, there’s all the gear. And then the accessories. Since I’m committed to the idea that I have no talent and never will, I’ve committed to the idea of not spending a lot of money on gear. So I’ve only picked up the bare minimum so far: one extra set of strings and a tuner. I need a tuner because, remember, I suck. I know people who don’t suck and who can tune by ear.

But this means, of course, that I’ve been playing my electric like an acoustic, largely out of consideration for those who live with me, because, as I said, I suck. That’s just sad, though, so I allowed myself a couple more purchases. First, I picked up an iRig 2 (pictured above) and a guitar cable. My iRig purchase was cheaper than on the manufacturer’s website, by the way, but I don’t recall if it was a Groupon or Amazon purchase. The iRig is a neat little device that has an input for your guitar cable on one end and an output for your iPhone or iPad on the other, and then another output on the device for headphones or small speakers. Once you get the iRig, you install a free app called AmpliTube that provides the kind of controls you’d get on a real amp — gain, bass, and mid — a noise filter, and a delay. You can buy through in-app purchases pretty much everything else — phlanger, distortion box, chorus, etc., and I think you can use it as a tuner — but it’s enough to get you started. The iRig also works with a lot of other apps and probably Apple’s own GarageBand, but I haven’t tried it yet.

So today was a watershed in my guitar playing. I plugged in for the first time. I plugged my guitar into my iRig and iPhone, and then I plugged my iRig into my Beats Pill (couldn’t get AmpliTube to play through Bluetooth for some reason). And… wow. This guitar has a really fuzzy, distorted sound even without a distortion box, even after I cranked down the gain. And now I don’t just suck, but I suck cool. I’ve gone from I Suck to iSuck. I learned at that moment that the mere act of plugging your guitar in creates rock and roll and, with it, a bunch of new musics.

Every instrument is a machine, I suppose, but even rocks and trees can be musical instruments. Acoustic instruments are very organic things. They’re alive. The film The Red Violin is about a living instrument with a history and a family. But plugging in makes the machine your instrument and limits the possible sounds primarily to your imagination, to a million happy accidents (if I lean my fingers down when I’m playing an open chord F I get nice blues rock sounds out of it — when these things happen, the trick is making it happen again on purpose), and to your tech skills.

One definition of rock is a kind of chord progression. Blues played faster. You can do this on an acoustic and really rock. But rock as we know it really started with Chuck Berry, because Berry plugged in his guitar and showed us all what else it could do. Rock is nature fed through a machine.

Rock is the Borg.

*****

P.S. I haven’t posted about Bowie yet because I felt his death a bit more strongly than I expected to, and because I hope to be doing something bigger than a blog post for him very soon. More later if things work out. In the meantime, I’ve been listening to his discography from David Bowie to the present. I’ve just made it through Lodger. What a great trip. Listening to Low was like listening to OK Computer for the first time.

I’ve had to renew my Apple Music subscription because Amazon Prime just doesn’t have that big a selection: it only carries Bowie’s last two albums and a few dozen songs on compilations. That’s typical for them. If you really want to access a lot of music, you need Apple Music. Apple has every Bowie studio album except for Tin Machine II and the Labyrinth soundtrack. It also has a few of his compilations, live albums, and EPs. Apple Music and Amazon Prime apps work about equally well; i.e., they’re both annoying in the same ways–like using a browser on a phone, but I think the Apple Music app gets kudos for presentation, while the Amazon Prime app gets kudos for their X-Ray Lyric service, which displays lyrics inline as the song proceeds.

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